Curiosity is something that I can attribute to having created some of the most interesting moments in my life. It has led me to explore avenues that I may have otherwise dismissed and it has brought about surprises that I might otherwise never have experienced.
A curious mind is one that could be described as an active, engaged and inquisitive mind. Such a mind frequently seeks out new information, enjoys discovering what there is to discover and enjoys the process that comes along with this goal. The drive to discover is in part driven by the mind’s desire to gain answers and an understanding of the subject under focus. As a curious mind is more engaged it also results in the person being more observant, meaning that they are more likely to recognise new opportunities or new aspects that emerge. As a result, a curious person is more likely to uncover properties that might have otherwise remained hidden to other people.
There is a thought that has struck me, and it’s one that has come back to me on a number of occasions. The thought is that there is a relationship between the mindset of a tester who possesses lateral (and often critical) thinking skills and that of a curious mind.
Whilst this relationship is not required for a person to become a tester, it is this underlying nature of wanting to know more, wanting to explore further, wanting to discover the unknown that shapes the behaviours of such a tester. It drives the tester to uncover more about the system or product that they are testing. This can be compared to someone who would be more than satisfied with just following orders, or only covering that which they feel sufficiently encompasses what is ‘necessary’ when working on a task.
A Curious Mind
There is a comparison that can be drawn between this mindset and that of a child. A child’s mind is open, eager to learn, seeking to understand and ready to embrace all that surrounds us. As we grow older we tend to subdue this part of us, not entirely, but to a level that it no longer has the value or emphasis in our minds it once held. Given that many education systems and businesses frequently value compliance (and conformity) over utilising our curiosity or imagination, this could be seen as being of little surprise.
Maybe it is those of us that have never really lost as much of this child-like curiosity that have been driven in such a way, that it then facilitates us with taking what we do to a greater level. This form of intrinsic motivation is also what drives a love of travelling to new destinations, but can also be likened to a passion for music, photography or various other creative fields, as like testing we are driven to explore, to discover, to attempt to know and to try to understand.
This behaviour, however, is not one that we can easily teach or craft and whilst we can attempt to re-awaken this behaviour in those who have largely subdued it, we cannot undo those experiences that go a large way to defining us.
“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”
Cracking Through Conformity
An increasingly popular school of thought utilised when seeking to remedy this issue is one formed around the concept of ‘unlearning’. An attempt to de-construct or undo the behaviours ingrained in people as taught to us by society, or phrased differently, “unlearning is about moving away from something rather than moving towards something” 1. Given the often conditioned and rigid mindset that people hold, there is great value that can be found through the unlearning process. It can bring about an important shift in perspective that opens the person’s mind to different ways of thinking.
Creating a new mental framework that can alter perspectives is important, it can open up a person’s mind and make them more receptive to new ideas; but where there is the potential for even greater value is in facilitating an experience that takes them beyond what the process of ‘unlearning’ alone can provide. This is because swapping one collection of thoughts for another does not in its own right translate to changes in behaviours (as opposed to changes in practices or methodologies that they might observe), behaviours that are then driven by the individual’s character.
Instead of merely seeking to ‘undo’ the habits and doctrine ingrained deeply within people’s personalities and educating them on alternative approaches that they can take within their roles, we can also look to re-ignite their curiosity and hopefully spark a drive within them that had previously been extinguished. This as much applies to those whose minds have become closed to alternate approaches as it does to those with an open mind, as in both cases it can still have a positive effect. The benefit however with the unlearning process is, that where it involves a tester who holds a more rigid mindset, it can then better equip them for the contradiction that following their curiosity can sometimes bring and can also result in them further embracing this process.
If we facilitate an opportunity for the tester to explore based upon their own ideas and challenge them to be as creative as possible whilst doing so, it can enable the tester to experience a form of autonomy that is driven largely by their imagination. It creates a chance for them to better embrace their devious side, where their lateral thinking skills can then be developed as they discover new and more creative ways of approaching such exploration. In addition to this, from the sense of autonomy which the tester is provided with, it also furthers their engagement with the exploration process.
Devious By Design
The award-winning British-American writer, Lesley Hazleton, said “All exploration, physical or intellectual, is inevitably in some sense an act of transgression, of crossing boundaries” 2. Given this belief, it would be possible to draw a connection between the act of exploration based on ones curiosity and a description of this behaviour as being a devious act.
In a testing workshop this year I was awarded the title of ‘Most Devious Tester’. In this instance, even though the actions were not what I felt to be all that devious in nature, what drove me to making the choices I did was my curiosity, having a desire to discover what the outcome might be when I attempted different actions. It is this same form of motivation that also drives people like grey and white hat hackers to see what will happen when they experiment with a system.
“The prize is in the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation when other people use it” 4
Richard Feynman (The Fantastic Mr Feynman)
This form of curiosity even drove people like Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman to make various scientific discoveries, such as working out a system for using pictorial representations of complex mathematical equations. He operated within the context of wanting to understand things that needed to be better understood and found enjoyment with every new discovery that he made throughout this process. As someone who was motivated by his curiosity he never tired of experimentation and had once described in a lecture that all theories were guesses that had stood up to testing4.
The common intention across all of the above examples is a desire to discover what is possible and what the outcomes might be when taking these different actions. So the focus is not on the act itself, but the knowledge (and to some degree experience) gained from the outcome of that act.
“I’m always looking, like a child, for the wonders I know I’m going to find—maybe not every time, but every once in a while” 5
Richard Feynman (The Making of a Scientist)
Re-Awakening the Explorer
The renowned professor of psychology Todd Kashdan cited that when we combine the activities of exploration with curiosity, it tends to have a positive impact on our well-being, through this deeper form of engagement3.
As is the case with children6, when we make and then share discoveries found through this exploratory process, a process guided by our curiosity, it provides us with a sense of mastery, a sense of achievement. The act of sharing these discoveries also allows us to receive recognition for these achievements. By creating this positive association between the discovery processes and the rewards they can bring, it can create an association within the tester that they will then be more likely to draw upon for future experiences.
The same kinds of stimuli that drive people to immerse themselves in new information could then also be derived here, as we learn about the systems or products that we are testing. We could create the same kinds of rewards in our brains that we get when we are performing other forms of discovery and learning.
If we re-ignite this desire to explore and re-create a passion for this behaviour by designing a system that gives the tester a sense of reward, it then aids in developing their confidence when applying these skills later. This confidence can result in them being more open to exploring the unknown, asking about the unspoken and taking a greater level of interest in more than just the ideas presented to them. It can encourage them into adopting this as something that they choose to do and has the potential to become a valued asset that they can tap into whilst testing.
“Curiosity demands that we ask questions, that we try to put things together and try to understand this multitude of aspects as perhaps resulting from the action of a relatively small number of elemental things and forces acting in an infinite variety of combinations”
Richard Feynman (The Feynman Lectures on Physics Vols 1-2)
A Positive Focus
To focus on creating a positive association with the discovery process rather than just attempting to undo the past may provide us with a better chance of making the kinds of changes to behaviour, even if only minor, that have the potential to benefit the testing world as a whole by creating more interested and more passionate testers. This is because experiences that are associated with rewards-based learning are ones that the amygdala within our brain is more likely to firmly implant within our long-term memories7, and much like with other emotional experiences this can result in transformations occurring.
Anette Prehn, a social scientist, author and award-winning leadership trainer points out…
“The brain actually has a hard time ‘getting’ our away-from intentions.
Instead it needs a towards intention” 8
So by creating a renewed interest in following their curiosity, it provides the person with a new focus to reach towards.
Discovery in Action
Examples of how positive experiences can help further ignite this passion can be witnessed in the Test Labs present at various testing conferences, where the act of testing is performed within a social context, with testers broken up into different teams and with rewards on offer, so as to drive those teams to discover as much as possible.
In this informal environment it encourages testers to approach what they are testing in a more lateral way, and hopefully in the process also top the other teams they are competing against. The more informal and socially competitive nature of this process, even though it contains an element of competition, provides an important space for the tester to be able to have fun.
The enjoyment experienced from participating in this process is key to then creating a positive association with the discovery process. It is this positive environment that can hopefully assist with pacifying the fears that some may have with embracing their curiosity, and through repeat positive experiences they can also build up their confidence in this area. The confidence this brings then also has the benefit of making people more comfortable with utilising their imagination, potentially then sparking their curiosity to go on to explore other avenues that they might have otherwise never conceived of.
The Weekend Testing sessions provide another example of an informal environment that encourages testers to really flex their minds and discover rewards in the process of discovery. These sessions demonstrate that even without the need to ‘unlearn’ a tester can still create a positive experience with the discovery process, one that can be born out of following their own curiosity and having the chance to experience the rewards that this process can bring.
The benefits of instilling this behaviour into testers can also then extend beyond their roles as testers and into their lives as well, potentially igniting other curiosities that they may have but might have otherwise never explored.
A Fear of Curiosity
The reliance on a person’s curiosity to drive the direction of some of the testing within an organisation is one that can leave certain managers and other senior staff on edge. The reason being, curiosity comes with no certainties. There are no guarantees, no metrics, no measurable that can be premeditated from people following their curiosity. This does not mean however that there is no value.
If the lack of certainties, a fear of dead ends or time wasted existed within the scientific community then there would be no such thing as scientific experiments, because if all exercises performed had to be ones that they knew would produce results, it could no longer be called an experiment. If such a mentality had existed with the astronomers who decided to point the Hubble telescope into an area in space that had no visible stars or planets, then they might have missed out on capturing what was declared the most important image of space ever captured9. Instead they took a chance and embraced their curiosity.
Like the scientific world12, the craft of testing has two forms of unknowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. So when the tester is following a path and discovers that it does not provide the answer they were looking for, it actually takes them one step closer to finding that answer. As such, the absence of an answer is in its own right still a result. Likewise, an exercise where the result actually provides disconfirmation also increases knowledge about the product too.
“If you’re not prepared to be wrong then you’ll never come up with anything original” 10
Ken Robinson (How Schools Kill Creativity)
This does not mean that following our curiosity is an exercise where we do so in a reckless and untamed manner. As with other approaches to testing we can utilise product knowledge, historical knowledge and past experiences to help guide where we choose to embrace our curiosity and where or when it is less appropriate to do so. In addition to this, where we give ourselves free rein with our curiosity we can still time box such exercises so as to ensure that it does not negatively impact other testing we wish to carry out. The ability to know when to stop following your curiosity can be just as important a skill as your ability to embrace it.
As a means to providing greater structure and discipline, one approach that we can use in addition to time boxing is to also define a focus around an area that we wish to explore. The important thing to be mindful of here is that the more restrictive the focus is, the more restricted the person’s imagination (and subsequently their curiosity) can be.
Structure and Curiosity – A Balancing Act
At the Let’s Test Conference this year, members of Atlassian’s QA team made a case in a presentation11 for how a predefined focus can bias our curiosity and subsequently what we also discover. They expressed that using requirements or documentation as a base for exploratory testing sessions actually reduces the tester’s chances of finding issues that relate to areas such as implicit requirements, incorrect documentation or expectations that end users might have as to how the product should behave. Given this, any focus that is defined would need to strike a balance in this regard.
The bias created by having a predefined focus however can also be used to positive effect when we are dealing with an area with known unknowns. Whilst this means that we are restricting our curiosity to the constructs of a defined area, we can also hope to use this focus to uncover as much as possible about that chosen area. So this bias can be used to positive effect, but the focus even here should still remain as broad as is relevant, as the more defined the focus is, the more significantly it will bias what is discovered.
In addition to the other positive applications of focus, another benefit of having a focus is that it may also assist those who are less experienced with approaching testing in this manner, as it can reduce their feelings of being too overwhelmed by the choices available to them.
The use of focus and time boxing can then hopefully mitigate some of the concerns that a business might have with integrating such activities into the testing that is performed, particularly so where we define a focus which relates to an area of the product or system with known unknowns.
The discoveries that can be made possible through embracing our curiosity in an appropriate manner can offer us a profound understanding of the properties of what we are testing. It can reveal implicit aspects that might have otherwise never made it into any test documentation, it can divulge patterns and help unearth the root cause for an issue that was otherwise not apparent and it can expose behaviours of a system or a product that can transform our views as to how the system actually works.
The drive that we can gain from embracing our curiosity, the satisfaction we can experience from our achievements by behaving in this more engaged manner, all assist in providing us with a greater sense of enjoyment out of the discoveries that we subsequently make and through this new drive and increased satisfaction, we can then find the inspiration to take our craft to a new level.
Thanks to both John Stevenson and Peter Langford for their feedback on this article and for further sparking my own curiosity!
1 “How do we Unlearn?” – http://mithya.prasadkaipa.com/learning/whatunlearn.html
2 “The doubt essential to faith” – http://www.ted.com/talks/lesley_hazleton_the_doubt_essential_to_faith.html
3 “Curiosity” – http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/allinthemind/curiousity/4675208#transcript
4 “The Fantastic Mr Feynman” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyqleIxXTpw
5 “The Making of a Scientist” – http://www.buffaloschools.org/uploads/CCLS/the%20text%20of%20feynman%20article%20blank.pdf
6 “Curiosity: The Fuel of Development” http://teacher.scholastic.com/professional/bruceperry/curiosity.htm
7 “The Amygdala, reward and emotion” http://www.people.vcu.edu/~mreimers/SysNeuro/Murray%20-%20Amygdala,%20reward%20and%20emotion.pdf
8 “Turn Procrastination Into Insights” http://anetteprehn.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Turn-Procrastination-Into-Insights.pdf
9 “The Most Important Image of the Universe Ever Taken” http://www.businessinsider.com/the-most-important-image-from-the-hubble-telescope-2013-9
10 “How Schools Kill Creativity” http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html
11 “Exploratory Testing Tips from Let’s Test” http://lets-test.com/?p=2335
12 “Known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns and the propagation of scientific enquiry” http://jxb.oxfordjournals.org/content/60/3/712.full
About the Author
Guy Mason has been involved with technology since a very young age. Throughout his lifetime he has created and run web sites, written for and assisted with the running of computer publications, been a hobbyist programmer and assisted with running computer related events. As a tester he started in his first testing role back in 2000 and has since worked across many of the leading Digital Agencies throughout London and assisted various of them with formulating test strategies to use in their business, in addition to also holding various other roles in Digital Media and Software as a Service companies.
Guy’s love of technology is married with his love of testing and he has a great passion for assisting with quality improvements for projects he works on where possible. You can contact him on Twitter (@TestingQA) or via his blog (testingqablog.blogspot.co.uk).